John Cantwell: The Guilt of the Survivor

We might call it The Gallipoli Syndrome. It is the belief, or the half-belief, that a massive defeat is a victory. 9/11 is like this; the killing of Martin Luther King; the killing of John F Kennedy; the executions that followed the Easter Rising; the First Battle of the Somme.

It is a foolish delusion of course, connected sometimes to the pride of nations. It was what called the Surge and the subsequent pull-out a victory, of sorts, in Iraq. It is what now, in the scramble to avoid further Green On Blue ‘incidents’ (midnight murders, parade ground mutinies, uniformed suicide bombings) in Afghanistan, is called ‘sticking to our mission’ or ‘leaving the Afghan Government with a good chance of achieving its goals’.

We are told Afghanistan is worth it. That our ‘mission’ there, to kill as many Taliban as we can before we ask them into a coalition and leave, is a good mission, and it somehow improves the lives of the children it does not kill; or cause, in a few years, the killing of, and their mothers, and fathers, and uncles, and the blowing up of their villages by a new wave of history.

But it is a logical absurdity, and of it John Cantwell, a traumatised major-general, his face a map of pain, spoke well on Lateline last night with Emma Alberici.

Alberici: Major John Cantwell, on Afghanistan you write of being haunted by the lives lost there. The Government for its part says though there’ve been many achievements in Afghanistan - life expectancy up by five years to forty-eight, many more children in schools, the people generally enjoying greater freedoms than they did in 2001 — but, in your view, have those gains at all been worth the painful losses for Australia?

Cantwell: Well, I don’t think so, Emma, to be absolutely honest. I acknowledge all of those things and it’s absolutely true that the extraordinary efforts and courage and endurance of our servicemen and women have produced some very good improvements - from a very low base. Sure, the Afghan life expectancy might have improved; it’s still amongst the worst in the world. Sure, the education’s better; it’s still amongst the worst in the world. Women and girls are still deeply disadvantaged, health is appalling, governance is broken. Let’s not delude ourselves we’ve created a Garden of Eden in Afghanistan. It’s never going to happen. But what I would contend is while acknowledging all of those advances that we’ve made, and they have been made at terrible cost, I would just put the view that for someone like me, who isn’t a politician, who isn’t required to strut the world stage, but was indeed required to look in the eye soldiers who were out on patrol, who were doing the job that they’d been sent to do despite its dangers every day, willingly, bravely, remarkably well, look them in the eye and then perhaps see them, as I did, unfortunately, on a slab in a morgue. And that’s when I asked myself, “Is that life worth it?” And I am of the view that the life of every one of those soldiers and the ten in particular that I was responsible for is so valuable, you can’t just say, “Oh, and by the way we’ve improved schooling in Uruzgan.” I don’t buy that. The lives are worth more than that. And despite our best efforts, I don’t think it’s justified.

Alberici: One of the most troubling recollections in your book was when you talk about the first of the ten soldiers you lost in 2010, the first two when you asked the doctor in the morgue not to zip the bag because you wanted to have a last goodbye. Was that part of your healing process, that ritual that you then continued?

Cantwell: I don’t think it was part of a healing process and I didn’t think about it that way. Perhaps it was indeed an addition to the sadness that I felt. But I did feel compelled to say goodbye. I felt responsible. I felt accountable. And that is a notion which is a bit slippery in our current society: the notion that it’s someone’s fault. Eventually someone has to be accounted. And I felt that I was the one who had to be called to account and I felt at the very least that I could say goodbye personally, make sure that those fallen soldiers were treated with deep dignity and respect and say goodbye. And that was something that I wanted to do, I felt strongly about and a number of the families who I’ve kept in touch with have thanked me for that because in some cases, because of the nature of the wounds, they couldn’t say goodbye themselves. And at least someone said goodbye to their loved one. And I feel that that was a positive in a very bad situation.

… Anyone who sees this utterance and this good man’s face will be moved by it. For it speaks not just of a syndrome — Survivor’s Guilt – - common in any war, or earthquake, or road accident, or nuclear meltdown, or tsunami. It speaks of being in the wrong war, in unwinnable terrain, against a host of differing tribes with different priorities and different moral emphases we cannot hope to ‘re-educate’ in the two years we have left. It cannot be done, any more.

We should get out soon.

We will feel so much better when we do.

And whatever major political party suggests it will win in a walk.

Leave a comment ?


  1. He is one of the first to tell the truth, our moron pollies though still kiss US butt to make us stay in a hell hole.

    The thing is that Afghanistan is worse now than it was in 2001 and will now stay worse for another generation.

    WE spend billions on wars and jailing refugees and little on aid.

  2. You see Marilyn, as much as you may like to hide in the sunny safe suburbs, sometimes wars must be waged.

    Sometimes we have to go kill the bad guys before they massacre us. See: Hitler 1938-1945. Pol Pot. The Hutu militia et cetera. Sometimes we should fight back too - like against the Belgians in the Congo, the Brits in Australia, the Japanese against their own people 1941-1946 and so on.

    But by all means go over to Kabul and tell the Taliban to make nice and play cricket and listen to Cold Chisel and when they invade San Francisco, be sure they wear flowers in their hair ….

    • You particularly stupid man, the government of Karzai are as bad and in many cases worse than the taliban.

      We had no need to attack Afghanistan in the name of punishing dead Saudis who committed a crime in the US.

  3. So why did they need to attack us?

    Could you say what would you have done after 9/11 and Bali? What would your advice to the PM and President have been?

  4. Onya Bob. Cantwell is one of our true heroes. Takes real guts as a supreme leader and to bare his empathetic soul to us all.Stephen Smith,Abbott, Take note!

  5. As an exercise in winning hearts and minds, I’d have to say it has been a failure.

    In general, and along with almost every nation in the UN, I have supported the police action in Afghanistan.

    But I must say the results to date have been less than satisfactory.

    Whose fault is that? Partly George W Bush who took his eye off the ball to invade Iraq, illegally.

    Partly that soldiers are not the ideal way to implement peace strategy.

    Partly that the job was always impossible.

    And partly that the “allies” in Afghanistan are little better than the Taliban/al Quaida enemy.

    With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it may have been better never to have gone in.

    But the occupiers of the high ground cannot and should not attempt to dance upon the graves of hundreds of UN soldiers, sent in good faith to try to achieve all the worthy goals too well canvassed to go into now.

    Sic transit gloria.

    • There were a lot of people Doug, well meaning, informed, intelligent insightful people, experts, historians, soldiers, previous occupiers, politicians, strategists, intelligence agency operatives who called it pretty accurately, and to whom the current outcome is not a surprise. NO high ground, NO 20/20 hindsight, just concerned people who warned, begged, pleaded the powers that be not to follow the eventual path we have taken.

      “Partly the job was impossible” not quite ” this band of brothers” but it will do. Partly the job was impossible, has a certain dance rhythm of its own don’t you think?

      • The most valuable thing I’ve ever been taught, there is no such thing as a simple answer to a complex question. Try and teach modern history from front to back, write your own curriculum. There are no clear cut narratives in modern history, it’s a big, bloody mess.

        All people can ask for are leaders that stand accountable. Cantwell deserves Australia’s full support. I hope this is only the beginning of the discussion that result in a royal inquiry and considerations of sovereignty. Perhaps it will be then the nation can contemplate constitution reform. Something is broken, many things are broken. When will anything be urgent?

        • Broken like my editing. Apologies.

          I’ve deleted 7 other paragraphs for Broomy’s sake.

          • The wish to impose a clear cut narrative is where it all goes wrong, a clear cut narrative indicates a lack of imagination. I like to imagine Mohammad Atta at Boston Airport while queuing in line, whispering under his breath, “Ah fuck it guys, let’s go get some pussy instead”.

            • I wish that he had a dream the night before of the RMS Lusitania, of Japanese bombers flying out of the clouds over Pearl Harbour, of silly nonexistent Vietnamese infantryman firing imaginary bullets at American jets flying off the Vietnamese coast…but alas.

              Personally I like the idea of Hauptmann Alfred Horn flying a modified Bf 110 fifty feet over the Fenwick Moor in the pitch black and not breaking his ankle in David Mclean’s paddock.

              The German military machine of 39-45 made many tactical mistakes. Allowing 300,000 allied soldiers to escape in fishing vessels, it could be argued, was not one of these blunders.

        • I think little is wrong with the constitution William. It’s more the power and people forces at the wheel and the system they put in place for themselves and that they stack in favour that way day after decade. This country has gone American besides having a constitution. Presidents are sock Puppets. the system is the same with each one and deviously guarded.

          The system is being stacked in favour and taste of the people and powers who’ve taken that role. If attempts are made to change it, it is manipulated to collapse somewhere else to the beat of an ilk’s drum. Presidents and constitutions are nothing. Parliament is owned, the rest a stage play, two parties tied and serving the American money god feigning a fight and maintaining the ruling class and greed’s Status quo. People make the difference.

          Remember this at the end of Obama’s next term like all Presidents terms before and watch the tag team match of Australian parties leaving holes for the people to have to dig themselves out of and the next party have to whinge about from greater comforts and pensioning’s heights. Keeps media services in permanent jobs servicing the assault.

        • On Afghanistan, lets hope the bloodbath after leaving is not too great and messy and that it doesn’t ignite the region. I wonder where the billions saved will be spent and how? We won’t hear about it and it’s probably already spent.

    • That line was never going to remain unmolested DQ.

      allthumbs gives it a gentle kick, allow me the privilege of giving it another:
      it reads like the scrambling for rationalisations,
      or is the poor apologia of those who went against their conscience,
      or it is the tragic fate of those who chose to walk into the blackness carrying neither compass, nor map, nor light, nor water.
      You, and many others, discarded these rudiments and chose instead to shoulder the weight of a martial rhetoric that got heavier with each step,

      Until, of course, we arrive at a place, somewhere still in the blackness, and say to ourselves….”[Partly that] the job was always impossible.”

      • Please don’t molest my lines, JG; even though we now know with the benefit of hindsight that the job was impossible, does that necessarily mean that the job should not have been attempted?

        History is littered with the grand failures of many huge undertakings; historians are kept in work writing and rewriting history.

        • Jim, you cannot write English and are too old to be taught it and are banned, again, for life.

          Please go away.

        • That hole in the ceiling, two years ago if would have been twenty minutes up a ladder and a smear from a tube of silicon or the need to replace a roof tile, but that was two years ago.

          You finally get around to getting a couple of quotes, perhaps get a guy in to have a look. He says ” I don’t know mate, more than a repair I am afraid,you are looking at major renovation my son, four weeks six blokes, I’ll have to work out an estimate and come back to you, materials and labour, not going to be pretty sunshine”.

          The quote arrives and you dismiss it out of hand and go in holiday instead, as e the ferry tickets to Santorini as a souvenir and curse yourself for not taking the donkey ride up the face of that fucking cliff. The water stains spread to the cornices and the ceiling paint carat to crack and peel, but you can still feel the black,I sand between your toes.

          From the book of large undertakings.

  6. The same goes for the UK. Operations in Afghanistan might have been justifiable if the second country invaded is Pakistan, which is essentially greater Afghanistan (or vice-versa). But to invade Iraq as a secondary mission was a bizarre whim that was wasteful of lives.

  7. The horrendous bloody mess in Afghanistan, that Western nations have marched into with such enthusiastic dunderheadedness, is the result of of certain cultural blindspots that have developed over the last two hundred years - principally the delusion that the way we live in the West is what everyone else on the Planet should aspire to. This in turn leads to the delusion that a Western-style Liberal democracy and neoliberal economy can be established by a kind of well-meaning Liberal Imperialism.

    This quote from Paul A. Cohen, which I found in another book, outlines the dimensions of the problem:

    ‘Since we got there first, we think we have the inside track on the modern condition, and our natural tendency is to universalise from our own experience. In fact, however, our taste of the modern world has been highly distinctive, so much so that John Schrecker has seen fit to characterise the West as ‘the most provincial of all great contemporary civilisations’…never have Westerners had to take other peoples’ views of us really seriously. Nor, like the representatives of other great cultures, have we been compelled to take fundamental stock of our own culture, deliberately dismantle large portions of it, and put it back together again in order to survive. This circumstance has engendered what may be the ultimate paradox, namely that Westerners, who have done more than any other people to create the modern world, are in certain respects the least capable of understanding it.’
    - Paul A. Cohen - Discovering History in China.

    Of course we should get out of Afghanistan. We haven’t the foggiest notion of what we’re attempting to do there. But we also need to start thinking seriously about what other problems Western confusion and fuzzy thinking are liable to lead us into.

  8. The Canadians lost 100 lives before they got out. What are we waiting for the same!

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